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A Veterans Day look-back at the My Lai Massacre


Much like it was in 1968, My Lai is a small hamlet close to the coast of central Vietnam. Before the massacre occurred that year, it was known as “Pinkville,” and that is how the massacre became known at first–as the Pinkville Massacre. Today, the village is home to farmers and fishermen, just as it was more than 40 years ago.

Somehow My Lai became the center of a bitterly contested region during the Vietnam War. Early one morning in March 1968, Company C (or Charlie Company), 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Infantry Brigade, landed there by helicopter and attacked the village. By the time they left four hours later, hundreds of old men, women and children lay dead, killed in cold blood. For the time, My Lai, or Pinkville, had ceased to exist.

Though the village was a total wipeout, there would be national and worldwide consequences.

Charlie Company was mostly made up of young infantry recruits fresh out of training at Fort Benning, Ga.

According to Kenneth Hodges, a former Charlie Company sergeant, the transition from civilian to soldier requires very rigorous training in how to kill–rifle training, grenade training, hand-to-hand combat, close-order fighting, bayonet training and others.

“You would have a drill sergeant shouting in your ear ‘breast stroke to the groin series.’ You would take your M-16 affixed with a bayonet and stab the practice dummy between the legs right into what would be the penis area while everyone participating is yelling ‘Kill! Kill!’”

“The spirit of the bayonet was to kill,” Hodges said. “You wanted soldiers highly motivated. The drill sergeant’s way of motivating was to have a response, a command and response from the soldiers. “He would ask, ‘What is the spirit of the bayonet?’ And you would respond with, ‘to kill, sergeant, to kill.’ So I feel soldiers were motivated along these lines.

“I was one of the sergeants that trained Charlie Company,” said Hodges. “I was pleased with the way they turned out. They turned out to be pretty good soldiers.”

The men of Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam from Hawaii in 1967. They had no combat experience, but had performed well in training and were considered the best company in their battalion. Their average age was 20. They had been drawn together from all over America. An Army report would later describe them as a typical cross section of American youth assigned to most combat units.

“Most of us were middle-class income from middle-class families, with exception of the African Americans in our company,” said Fred Widmer, a former company radio operator. “Our company consisted of guys that were from all across the United States–Indiana, Pennsylvania. . . . I’d say you had a good cross section of the total population of the United States at that time. A lot of times when we were first in the country we would go villages up and down the highway. We would play with the kids in between pulling guard duty, and at one bridge in particular there was one boy that would hang there with the GI’s. We nicknamed him six fingers because he had an extra thumb, we would always take him stuff–candy, gum and take pictures with him. GI’s with the kids. That meant a lot and you got a chance to meet a lot of people.”

Said Michael Bernhardt: “There was no one else but us. We were in this company and this place all alone. We had a company of men that came from one country; we all came from the same culture. We were dropped 10,000 miles away and we felt close because there was no one else to feel close to. Barely a month after our arrival in Vietnam, we were deployed in operations of patrolling jungles in Quang Ni providence around the area we all knew as Pinkville, which was known to be sympathetic to the enemy.

When we first started losing members of the company it was mostly through booby traps and sniper fire.

We never got into a main conflict, per se. If you could see who was shooting at you, you could actually shoot back one on one.”

Booby traps were the main problem in the weeks leading up to the massacre. In a unit of little more than 120, Charlie Company had four men killed and 38 wounded, almost all by land mines booby traps and snipers. The fact that they could seldom find an enemy to shoot at caused frustration to grow. The distinction between enemy sympathizers and simples civilians rapidly eroded.

Varnado Simpson told his daughter he had to ask himself who’s the enemy. “They had little kids over there that would shoot you in the back or stab you when you walked away. How could you distinguish between who the enemy is the good or the bad? All of them looked the same. That’s the reason the war was so different. It wasn’t like you could tell German’s over here or Japanese over there. They all looked alike, North and the South, so how can you tell?”

As a professional soldier.
Hodges was taught to carry out orders, and at no time did it cross his mind to disobey or to refuse to carry out an order that was issued by his superiors.

“If one of my men would have refused to shoot I shutter to think what would have been the repercussions,” he said. “It’s hard to say now what I would have done looking back. He would have been in serious trouble. He could have faced court-martial. He could have been shot on the spot for refusing an order in the face of the enemy, in face of hostile fire. If someone refuses to carry out an order they would have been in trouble.”

When reminded that it was later determined that there was no hostile fire, he responded: “At the time we did not realize that there was no hostile fire.”

How were these 18- and 19-year-old kids able to commit such acts without questioning it? he was asked.
“I feel they were able to carry out the assigned task, the orders to kill children, woman, and elderly because they were soldiers,”  Hodges said. “They were trained that way. It’s either you or the enemy, and those people in that village–the children the women the old men–were considered the enemy.”

Questioned as to whether he thought the orders were morally right and that following such orders was behaving in a moral fashion? he said: “I feel we carried out the orders in a moral fashion. We did not violate any moral standards.”

Despite the total absence of hostile fire Lt. William L. Calley, the ranking officer of Charlie Company, continued to order his men to shoot. Most obeyed, but some refused.

“Lt. Calley ordered certain people to shoot these people,” said Harry Stanley. “I was one of them and I refused. He told me that he was going to have me court-martialed when we got back to base camp. I told him, ‘That’s not an order; that is craziness,’ so I felt like I did not have to obey. If you want to court-martial me you do that if you can get away with it.”

“I felt like it was horrible, just a terrible thing to be going through,” said Stanley. “I felt like a red-blooded American boy just like the rest of the guys that was there, you know. To see Black and White guys doing it did not make any difference. It just seemed like a horrible thing. We all came from the same place, and I know they all had to have the same values as I had somewhere along the line. If they didn’t get it in school they got it in religion. You could pick it up from a stranger, but to go and do something like that was immoral to me.”

Newspapers in America hailed My Lai as a significant victory, with many enemy dead. For more than a year what really happened in My Lai remained hidden from the outside world. Then the truth came to light.

Two years after the massacre, on March 29, 1971, Lt. Calley was convicted of the premeditated murder of 22 Vietnamese civilians. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, but the hue and cry around the nation was great in his defense. Ultimately, he served only three and a half years of house arrest at Fort Benning.

But one of the American victims of the massacre may be Varnado Simpson who lived pretty much as a recluse in Mississippi.

“How can you forgive?” he wrote in his diary. “I can’t forgive myself for the days, even though it was something that I did and it was something that I was told to do, but how can I forgive? I live with it everyday. It is easy for you to say, ‘Well go ahead with your life,’ but how can you go ahead with your life when this is holding you back? How can I put my mind to anything positive because it is always negative?

“There is a part of me that is kind and gentle and there is another part of me that is evil and destructive. There is more destructive in my mind than goodness, there is more wanting to hurt and to kill than wanting to love. I do not let anyone get close to me. That loving feeling and that caring feeling, that’s not there, and all this was caused by My Lai.

“My little boy was playing over at his grandmother’s front yard when I was in Jackson, Miss., and some teenagers across the street from his grandmother’s house got into an argument. One was 14 and the other was 15. One of the teenagers ran home and got a gun the other teenager ran in the direction where my little boy was playing and he [the other teen] discharged the weapon and hit my boy while attempting to shoot the fleeing teenager.

“My son was hit in the head and he died. I immediately ran out of the house and picked him up and stared at my son and he reminded me of one of the little kids I had killed from the village of My Lai, and I said to myself this is the punishment I received from the horrors I had committed in My Lai. When I returned from my son’s funeral that evening the glass on his photograph had cracked and I decided to leave it like that.

“I take 1,200 mg of psychotropic medication four times a day to keep me under control; it prevents me from hurting someone. I have attempted suicide three times to get this feeling out of my head. I believe God still has me here for a purpose.

“I feel ashamed for what I did. However, if you go to war it can happen. It can happen after they program you and train you, it can happen; this is reality. This is what war is. War is not something where I shoot at you and you shoot at me. War is killing all types of ways.

“I was 19 when I went to Vietnam I was a rifle specialist 4th class. I was trained to kill, but the reality of killing someone is different from training and pulling the trigger. I knew that day I was going to kill women and children dogs and cats. I knew the women and children were there, but I did not know it was going to happen until it did. I didn’t want to kill anyone. I was not raised up to kill. My first shooting that day was a woman that was running with her back facing me along a tree line. She was carrying something. I did not know if it was a weapon. I just didn’t know. I did know it was a woman and I did not want to shoot a woman, but I was given orders to shoot so I’m thinking when she was running she had a weapon, but when I shot her and she turned over it was a baby. I shot her about three or four times and the bullets just went through her and the baby.

“The baby’s face was half gone and I just went blank the programming came to me to just kill and I just started killing. You did not have to look for someone. They were just there. It wasn’t hard to find anyone to kill.

“At My Lai I was personally responsible for killing between 20 to 25 people. I would shoot them, cutting their throats, scalping them, cutting off their hands and cutting out their tongue. I did that. I just went and my mind just went.”